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H.L. Mencken on Governments and Politicians

Published by on April 22, 2010

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by Chris Leithner

THE VOLUMINOUS writings (nineteen books and thousands of essays, articles and reviews) of H. L. Mencken, one of America’s finest writers and perhaps its greatest journalist and chronicler of American English, are a virtually-forgotten treasure trove of sparkling wit and deep wisdom. Like knowledge of their own history and respect for their own Constitution, decades ago most Americans consigned him to the dustbin. To peruse his pearls about government, democracy, politicians and elections, as well as socialism and capitalism, is to perceive something of what America once was and now merely claims to be. “Government is a broker in pillage,” Mencken said in Prejudices: First Series (1919), “and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.” In that book he added “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule,” and defined the socialist as “a man suffering from an overwhelming conviction to believe what is not true.”

“Democracy is a form of worship,” he observed in The American Credo: A Contribution Toward the Interpretation of the National Mind (1920). “It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.” Further, “Socialism is simply the degenerate capitalism of bankrupt capitalists. Its one genuine object is to get more money for its professors.” In The American Mercury (24 April 1924) he wrote about the state’s indoctrination of the young: “[The] erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

In The American Mercury (27 August 1924) came this: “The aim of democracy is to break all … free spirits to the common harness. It tries to iron them out, to pump them dry of self-respect, to make docile John Does of them. The measure of its success is the extent to which such men are brought down, and made common. The measure of civilisation is the extent to which they resist and survive. Thus the only sort of liberty that is real under democracy is the liberty of the have-nots to destroy the liberty of the haves.” In Notes on Democracy (1926), Mencken elaborated this theme. “Democracy is based upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces. Its first concern must thus be to penalise the free play of ideas … The average man doesn’t want to be free. He wants to be safe.”

And in his Chrestomathy (1949), a summary compilation of his writings, Mencken identified the “inner nature” of government:

‘All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man; its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organisation, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are …

‘What lies behind all this, I believe, is a deep sense of the fundamental antagonism between the government and the people it governs. It is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members … When a private citizen is robbed a worthy man is deprived of the fruits of his industry and thrift; when the government is robbed the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before. The notion that they have earned that money is never entertained; to most sensible men it would seem ludicrous. They are simply rascals who, by accidents of law, have a somewhat dubious right to a share in the earnings of their fellow men.

This gang is well-nigh immune to punishment. Its worst extortions, even when they are baldly for private profit, carry no certain penalties under our laws. Since the first days of the Republic, less than a dozen of its members have been impeached, and only a few obscure understrappers have ever been put into prison. The number of men sitting at Atlanta and Leavenworth for revolting against the extortions of government is always ten times as great as the number of government officials condemned for oppressing the taxpayers to their own gain … There are no longer any citizens in the world; there are only subjects. They work day in and day out for their masters; they are bound to die for their masters at call … On some bright tomorrow, a geological epoch or two hence, they will come to the end of their endurance …’

Mencken saw clearly the great danger of blithely assuming that the public weal motivates politicians:

‘These men, in point of fact, are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers. Their purpose, first, last and all the time, is to promote their private advantage, and to that end, and that end alone, they exercise all the vast powers that are in their hands … Whatever it is they seek, whether security, greater ease, more money or more power, it has to come out of the common stock, and so it diminishes the shares of all other men. Putting a new job-holder to work decreases the wages of every wage-earner in the land … Giving a job-holder more power takes something away from the liberty of all of us …’

One of the major reasons that the words “government” and “tyranny” are virtually synonyms, Mencken showed, was the gullibility of the ruled: “The State is not force alone. It depends upon the credulity of man quite as much as upon his docility. Its aim is not merely to make him obey, but also to make him want to obey.” Is government sometimes useful? You must be joking! “So is a doctor. But suppose the dear fellow claimed the right, every time he was called in to prescribe for a bellyache or a ringing in the ears, to raid the family silver, use the family tooth-brushes, and execute the droit de seigneur upon the housemaid?”

Finally, Mencken did not reserve any greater affection for the “military caste” than he did for the civilian bureaucracy:

‘The military caste did not originate as a party of patriots, but as a party of bandits. The primeval bandit chiefs eventually became kings. Something of the bandit character still attaches to the military professional. He may fight bravely and unselfishly, but so do gamecocks. He may seek no material rewards, but neither do hunting dogs. His general attitude of mind is stupid and anti-social. It was a sound instinct in the Founding Fathers that made them subordinate the military establishment to the civil power. To be sure, the civil power consists largely of political scoundrels, but they at least differ in outlook and purpose from the military …’

Mencken denounced the conjoined twins, socialism and democracy; he ridiculed the pretensions and idiocies of politicians (civilian and military); and he mourned the death of the American Republic. He therefore opposed America’s entry into both the First and Second World Wars, and reserved special contempt for the execrable Franklin Roosevelt and his catastrophic New Deal.

Mencken has been buried, it seems, because the principles he (and many others) defended in the 1920s are the ones he (virtually alone) continued to extol until he died in 1956. Evil Franklin, on the other hand, has been lionised precisely because the promises he made in 1932 — namely to uphold the gold standard, balance the budget and reduce the government’s payrolls — were abandoned in 1933; and his repeated vow in 1940 (“your boys are not going to be sent to any foreign wars”) was swiftly repudiated in 1941. Today, most Americans would dismiss Mencken’s principles as “radical,” “extreme” and even “heretical.” Not a few would denounce them as “un-American,” and neoconservatives would revile him as a “defeatist” and a “traitor.” How might Mencken answer these epithets? In a letter to Upton Sinclair (14 October 1917) he fired this fusillade:

‘The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.’

Read more at Quebecois Libre
republished with permission

Chris Leithner grew up in Canada. He is director of Leithner & Co. Pty. Ltd., a private investment company based in Brisbane, Australia.

Chris Leithner grew up in Canada. He is director of Leithner & Co. Pty. Ltd., a private investment company based in Brisbane, Australia.
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Readers' Comments

  1. Wayne simpson on July 1st, 2014 9:29 am

    I am trying to validate Mencken as the source of the quote “the urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.” You cite Prejudices: First Series, but I can’t find it there. Can you refer to a specific chapter to help?

  2. Editor on July 1st, 2014 10:11 am
  3. Wayne simpson on July 1st, 2014 11:09 am

    Thanks a lot.





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